Last Sunday afternoon, my friend and I cycled to Tate Modern. He’d been wanting to cheer me up, had noticed for a while now that a cobwebby gloom had descended upon me, and said, let’s do something fun. Actually, the bike ride was probably the best part; the freedom of the Sunday streets with all of the afternoon before us. London is a complicated city, I think, the relative that can either break the party or make it, but that day it was perfect; the sternness of St John Street giving way to Smithfield, the narrow passages around Hatton Garden, the City and then the river. My friend pointed out that we’d whirled past a 12th century church without even noticing.
So, after a couple of hours of socially distanced art, we came back, stopped to look. And heard singing.
When did you last hear singing?
It feels like there have been so many last nights, this year. We’ve not just been making hay while the summer sun shines. We — or at least, I — have been trying to do a year’s worth of everything. There was a week on foreign soil in which I stockpiled memories, minute by minute; this sunshine cupping my face is what I will think of when I look up and see that it is dark at four. Ice cream dripping down my wrists and forming white polka dots on a scalding pavement – I will think of this in January, when it rains for ten days in a row. And when I put my hand to the hot forehead and the coughing begins, I must remember this moment, swimming in the sea, the sky and the salt and the endless horizon. These last few weeks, we’ve all had to cram ourselves with a year’s worth of joy.
Look, I’m not immune to the pleasures of autumn. Conkers and the scent of an open fire, brown leather boots and mushrooms. Pie.
It’s just that this year is different. But you know that.
My friend and I stood in the evening light and marvelled and it was golden and glorious. And then someone from the church came out, and said, ‘They’re just running through a few bits before Evensong. Come in. Come in!’
So we chained our bikes and went into this exquisite church, where a kind man ushered us past a DO NOT ENTER sign so we could see the view from the pulpit and ah, it was like being inside an incense scented box of jewels. Then we bowled home through the soft sunshine and the pavements of Upper Street were decked with tables and chairs, and there were people sitting out having dinner in the last breaths of summer.
And I thought, as I flew through, THIS is what I’ve missed, and this is what will soon vanish again, the sense of life as a gift waiting to be unwrapped. The small and unexpected lovelinesses that can sometimes elevate… everything.
It’s not forever and goodness knows, it’s hardly even suffering, really. There are books and there is TV. There is pie, and pie is no small thing (at least, not the way I make them).
I suppose, though, what I yearn for is the unexpected. Adventure isn’t something to pre-book. Intimacy doesn’t wear a mask. Quarantine, illness, Brexit, I glance up and they draw ever closer and my attempts at spontaneity feels like a picnic beneath towering cliffs. The rocks groan as we pass round the jam sandwiches, I lift my little boy high and see the the first stones begin to fall. This will bury us, I think, if not in sickness, then in something else. In the endless hopeless dark.
No. No no no.
I don’t yet know what it is that will save me, save us. Maybe it’s this, here. You, reading my words. I know you can’t take my hand, but please, know that I am waving, from my desk, from my doorway, from the upper window.
Wave back, won’t you? And together, let’s think of a time, one day, soon, when we will sing.